Eros the Bittersweet

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2189

Eros the Bittersweet is an odd, neat, duplicitous little book, written with double purposes for a double audience. One vein, much stronger in the early pages of the essay, is its generalizing bent: All lovers feel as Sappho felt. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina joins with Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and...

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Eros the Bittersweet is an odd, neat, duplicitous little book, written with double purposes for a double audience. One vein, much stronger in the early pages of the essay, is its generalizing bent: All lovers feel as Sappho felt. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina joins with Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Emily Dickinson to present erotic love in its most paradoxical context. This epic sweep of generality is coupled with meticulous analysis of individual texts as they survive in the original Greek. The essay is both scholarly and personal in tone, at times holding the reader at a proper academic distance, at others dropping an arm about his shoulders and whispering cozily in his ear. The author’s joy in paradox is so great and so apparent that the reader can sense its growth with each increment of paradox within the text; the more paradox, the merrier.

Eros the Bittersweet, significantly, has no numbered chapters, only coyly titled subdivisions, thirty-four in all, many accompanied by quotations from sources as diverse as Queen Victoria and Roland Barthes. In the preface, a character from Franz Kafka chases spinning tops for the sheer delight of the chase. The scholar, Carson assures us, is also engaged in a chase after spinning tops, and delights in the play of metaphor, while attempting to fix that movement in formal study.

The first movement of Carson’s essay, generalizing, yet closely linked to specific analysis of a single term, is an inspection of Sappho’s term glukupikron, or “bittersweet,” and the interplay of its meanings in poetic context and in its English renderings. In succeeding pages, Anna Karenina and Simone Weil, as well as a host of ancient and modern authors, are cited as pondering the paradoxical nature of desire. Eros is seen as “limb loosener,” tormentor of lovers and poets, qualified in terms of opposites polarized by the universal emotion of love-hate. Desire requires a three-part structure: lover, beloved, and obstruction. Examples of this “triangulation” (based in part on René Girard’s concept of “mimetic desire”) are drawn from meticulous analysis of Sappho’s verse and also from ancient cultural practices. Carson cites the example of harpagnos, stylized Cretan homosexual-rape courtships, where the seeming opposition by a family to a boy’s abduction was necessary for his desirability. Edges and boundaries of the self are felt only in desire, the outreach of self to other. The sweetness of desire is doubled by the bitterness of loss. The lover inevitably discovers that complete union of two individual selves is never possible, that two lovers can never dissolve into one. Permitting herself a pun, Carson suggests that, seeing his “hole” (lack, loss, wound), the lover sees his “whole.” The lover’s self-consciousness, born of Eros, is both aware of the superbeing which union with the beloved would produce and wounded by the impossibility of this union. Puns, like desire, increase awareness of edges. While erotic desire insists on the similarity and difference of two lovers, puns affirm the same for two words.

Carson’s essay proceeds from a consideration of erotic love and puns to the development of Greek literacy and its effect on the ancient lyric poets. While Sappho and Archilochus inherited the oral tradition of Greek epic poetry, the lyric poets were estranged from that past by the development of the Greek alphabet and written words. The traditional language, formulas, and rhythms of oral epic were used by the lyric poets, but with the self-consciousness of lovers suffering from desire. Concentration on the hard-edged written word divided the poet from the immediacy of the living world. The impact of this consciousness of division was particularly acute for the generation of Greek poets who first sustained its assault. Alphabetization, Carson says, is erotic, and it is no coincidence that capricious Eros was first sung by these Greek poets. Wind, wings, and breath bind the complex of Eros and language. Vowels are moving air; consonants give edges to words. The development of the Greek alphabet, with its consonants as well as vowels, is thus significantly different from earlier syllabaries or pictographic writing systems. Students of words, like lovers, are seekers, wooers, stretching out in desire for the other. Union results in annihilation. The triangulation of desire, the tactics of imagination, are directed at preventing union while keeping desire alive in a search for “something more” than perfect union; metaphor, for example, brings two objects close in comparison yet lets the edges, the incongruence of the two, show.

As Carson builds up her dynamic of triangulation, she introduces the concept of a “blind point” of desire, with two examples as illustration: One is the Velázquez painting commonly known as Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). Carson’s interpretation of this complex painting is based, to a large extent, on Michel Foucault’s well-known study in The Order of Things (1973). Understanding of her argument would have been assisted greatly by a reproduction of the painting itself, for her point of interest is not the familiar, luminous foreground group of a flaxen-haired infanta surrounded by her attendants. Carson concentrates, rather, on a detail in the background, a mirror hanging on the far wall, in which the viewer may dimly perceive a portrait of the king and queen of Spain. This mirror, Carson argues, draws the eye of the viewer and should reflect, not the king and queen, but the viewer himself; it is the blind point toward which one’s view turns and loses itself. While this concept of blind points does not particularly aid in the understanding of a complex canvas, a series of frames and mirror reflections before which the mind boggles, the painting in its turn does serve to illustrate Carson’s concept of blind points.

A second example of the blind point is drawn closer to home. Carson cites Homer’s version of the myth of the hero Bellerophon, who represents in human form the blind point of Eros. The hero is beautiful, his face the sign of desire. He carries unsuspectingly a letter from a secret enemy, ordering his death. Carson suggests that, as Homer uses these two important qualifications, they remain inactive. Bellerophon’s beauty is irrelevant; it is his heroism that counts for Homer. The letter ordering the hero’s death is delivered unopened and has no decisive effect on Homer’s story. Carson’s argument is that for Homer, an oral poet, oral literature was the potent force. The written texts of Bellerophon’s face and sealed death warrant were essentially uninteresting in an oral context. Homer’s Bellerophon is a counterexample, offered in opposition to the consideration of Eros found in the lyric poets, treating the same themes of desire and the folded word with sublime indifference.

Carson briefly considers the tradition of ancient novels as an example of the delaying tactics of Eros-language-literature which developed as Greek literacy spread. These novels, erotika pathemata (erotic sufferings) as the Greeks called them, put pairs of lovers through separations, protracted wanderings, and series of adventures, all designed to create suspense and to delay union as long as possible. Reader and novelist tacitly agree in a reach of desire to triangulate and thus prolong the process; the union of the lovers and the end of the novel are identical.

A fragment from The Lovers of Achilles, a lost play of Sophocles, provides Carson with a metaphor used throughout the latter third of the essay, that of children holding ice in their hands, delighting in the ice yet watching it melt away. Desire is a melter of limbs. The ruses of Eros and the melting of ice are played out in time, both leading to eventual loss. Literacy affects the individual’s use of time by attempting to fix the transient spoken word in written form like a piece of ice that “melts forever there.”

It is the seeming ability of writing to fix the living word that is at the core of the final movement of Carson’s essay, a study of Plato’s Phaedrus and an examination of the argument that it is better to choose someone who does not love as an erotic partner. After all, desire can damage its recipient; a man in love with a beautiful boy will try to keep him unchanged physically and mentally and, further, will deny him education and the company of others in order to preserve him in a temporal state of desirability. When the boy becomes an adult and wishes the adult prerogatives of home and family, he is no longer desirable. A nonlover who chooses such a boy with an eye to the objective end point of their partnership will provide for his education and eventual welfare as an adult. The Socrates of the Phaedrus takes exception to this argument, objecting to its rhetoric (it has no proper opening) and to its perversion of the natural living order (considering the end of the affair before it starts and omitting its proper beginning: desire).

Three main examples of harmful desire are cited by Plato: Midas with his golden touch, cicadas that sing away their adult life until death from starvation, and the gardens of Adonis, festive pots of rootless plants forced into bloom and discarded after the festival of Adonis. In all cases, Carson notes, the interplay of time and desire is highlighted: Midas’ touch petrifies the beloved; cicadas live in a “now” of desire; Adonis’ gardens are predestined to wither when their brief time passes. In Plato’s dialogue, these examples and the text of the nonlover argument intersect with a consideration of wisdom and the written word. If a text fixes not the living outlines of thought but only the outward forms of knowledge, what is the status of the wisdom thus absorbed by the reader? Written words lack desire. They are like Adonis’ rootless plants or like Socrates’ unloving lover. They possess only the outward form of Eros, not the substance. Inhabiting ritual time, rather than real time, they all lack a proper beginning.

Carson’s Socrates suggests that the proper beginning is madness, mania, a divine invasion which joins the outer and inner selves and which gives a glimpse into the ideal realm of eternal forms inhabited by the gods. In searching for a painless, timeless security which expels Eros from love affairs or the written word, fixing time in its flight, man loses the divine madness that can free him. The loss and pain of desire expressed by the lyric poets is an occasion for growth, for the lover-searcher to grow and to take wing himself. Leaning at a major point in his argument on a pun culled from two spurious quotes from Homer, Socrates says that the gods’ name for Eros is Pteros (winged). For Carson, the change from Eros to Pteros is a flash of insight which both distorts the metrical scheme of the verse (by lengthening the syllable preceding the added letters) and unites the acts of lover and writer. Both the poetic Eros and the Homeric word are winged. Eros is meant to rearrange meters and forms.

The topic of the Phaedrus is love one moment, writing the next. This written text, itself an example of Eros at work, discredits writing, Carson insists, by disappearing into a “blind point” in the logic. The final erotic exercise is thought, reaching out to know and employing ruse and subterfuge to continue a process directed toward an ever-receding object. Thought, too, is winged.

This short summary of Carson’s argument cannot convey the charm with which the text lures the reader on to delight in the spinning top of literature. It also cannot convey the aggravation readers may feel in the early movement of the essay, when generalities and enthusiasm carry the text too far. Examples, swept together from many periods, say that “no one who has ever been in love” can deny a certain point and allege universality for one point or another. A surviving fragment of a poem by Sappho is analyzed as if its fragmentary nature were a deliberate poetic ruse, not a chance occurrence of transmission. The academic name-dropping of Eros the Bittersweet, ranging on one page from Aristotle to Paul Ricoeur and Roman Jakobson, is both exhilarating (so many pieces of the puzzle seem to fit) and exasperating (so many pieces seem truncated and forced into place). While Carson’s “hole”/“whole” pun is forced and artificial, the point she makes about puns with it lends valuable support to her later reading of Plato’s Eros/Pteros. The element of play which the pun introduces is seductive. Ultimately, even the reader incapable of judging Carson’s work with Greek originals is cajoled into playing along, enjoying the increasing elegance of the argument, and forgiving the occasional frustrations of the early text. In narrowing its scope from “everyone who has ever been in love” to the Socrates of the Phaedrus, Carson performs the curious trick of broadening the resonance of her essay. The reader may not believe her when she speaks about erotic alphabetization, yet, by the last page, he is thoroughly seduced.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9

Choice. XXIV, December, 1986, p. 637.

Library Journal. CXI, November 15, 1986, p. 97.

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